The Imitation Game

Posted on December 4, 2014 at 5:03 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, homophobia, suicide
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2014
Date Released to DVD: March 30, 2015 ASIN: B00RY85CQI
Copyright 2014 The Weinstein Company
Copyright 2014 The Weinstein Company

Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician with an enormous intellect, an almost equally enormous ego, and an almost equally enormous secret. He was one of the founding thinkers behind modern computing and it is his name that we use for the test that determines whether a computer has achieved true artificial intelligence status. The Turing test standard is human conversation. If a human cannot tell whether he or she is communicating with a person or a computer, than the program has passed the Turing test and is true artificial intelligence.

I’m not sure that Alan Turing could have passed the Turing test. Cumberbatch, who also plays a super-smart, arrogant, and obnoxious guy in “Sherlock,” creates a very different character here. Turing himself is an Enigma. In the opening scene, a sort of job interview nightmare in which Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) is trying to interview Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) for a spot on the team working at the famous Bletchley Park estate to break the code the Germans were using to send orders to their troops. If passing as human means meeting even the most minimal standards of civility and responsiveness, Turing failed that interview. He seemed to think that it was he who was interviewing Denniston to determine whether the task was of sufficient interest and import to merit his attention.

Denniston begins to dismiss him. But when Denniston says that everyone thinks the code, known as Enigma, is unbreakable, Turing says briskly, “Let me try, and then we’ll know for sure.” Denniston does not have a better idea or a better option.

The German code is unbreakable because it is constantly changing, so by the time any one message has been decrypted, whatever was learned could not be applied to whatever comes next. The Allies are perpetually behind. [The process, complicated as it is, has been simplified for the purposes of the movie, glossing over the important work done by Polish mathematicians, the contributions of the French, and the challenges faced as the Germans continued to make the Enigma more complicated and impenetrable as the war continued.) While a bunch of brilliant mathematicians, scientists, and puzzle-solvers (including Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley) worked away, Turning realized not only that what made the code unbreakable was the inability of any then-existing computational mechanism to perform enough calculations fast enough to decrypt the messages before the code was reconfigured the next morning, but that he could create a machine to do it.

We know how it turned out. But director Morten Tyldum keeps the story gripping on several levels. First, there is the conflict between Turing and just about everyone, and the pressure for immediate results as he is spending a lot of time (years) and money on something no one has ever seen before. Second, there are the interpersonal struggles, and Turning’s internal difficulties. He did want intimacy, and we see in his memories of his first love, a boy at his school. He likes Joan, and is briefly engaged to her. But he was gay at a time when being gay was punishable by prison. Then there are other kinds of secrets. One of the people working on breaking the code may be a spy. And once the code is broken, the Allies have the wrenchingly painful decision about what to do with the information. It’s not just a puzzle. It is statecraft, and terrible compromises and terrible losses are part of the job.

The film adds some unnecessary drama and oversimplifies parts of the story. But it is a powerful, complex drama and a long-overdue tribute to a true hero and visionary.

Parents should know that this film includes wartime themes and images, some disturbing, wrenching moral choices, betrayal, the pressures of being a closeted homosexual when it was a crime, drinking, smoking, and some sexual references.

Family discussion: Do you agree with the decision to withhold the news that the code had been broken? To allow the mole to keep spying?

If you like this, try: Read up on the history of the codebreakers at Bletchley (The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-boat Codes, 1939-1943) as well as those in Poland and the spies who helped them get the information they needed and try some online version of the Turing Test.

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Posted on October 30, 2014 at 5:58 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some sexual material and teen partying
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Adult and teen drinking and drunkenness, drunk driving
Violence/ Scariness: Car crash, tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 31, 2014 ASIN: B00OUNNWPS

Lynn Shelton is known for writing and directing small, intimate, independent films with a lot of improvised dialogue (“Humpday,””My Sister’s Sister,” “Touchy Feely”), often using the same small group of actors. With “Laggies,” she moves seamlessly to working with a more conventional screenplay, written by someone else (novelist Andrea Seigel), and with a higher-profile Hollywood cast, but the film maintains a nice indie sensibility that lets the characters speak for themselves.  For example, the only time the word “laggie” is used, it is not directed at any of the main characters and it is never explained, but we get the point.  The laggie is Megan (Keira Knightley), who has lagged behind her close-knit group of friends from high school.  Ten years later, all of them are established in careers and relationships.  You can tell they all have mortgages and 401(k)s.  But Megan, who has an MA in counseling, is currently working as a “sign girl” for her accountant father (Jeff Garlin), standing on the sidewalk twirling an arrow sign advertising his firm.  She is living with Anthony (Mark Webber), the boyfriend she has been with since sophomore year of high school.

At a bridal shower for her friend Allison (Ellie Kemper), her friends find her joking immature and she finds them stuffy.  And at Allison’s wedding (with a hilariously pretentious First Dance), two developments shake Megan badly.  Anthony proposes. And Megan sees her father kissing (and more) Allison’s mother.  Megan leaves the wedding and meets four teenagers hanging out in front of a convenience store.  They ask her to buy some booze for them and she reasons that since someone did it for her, she should do it for them.  “It’s a rite of passage,” she reassures herself.

With no interest in returning to her messy life, she spends some time with the kids.  They think she is cool, and she likes being thought of that way.  Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz) gives her a phone and asks her to stay in touch.  When Megan gets back to her apartment, she accepts Anthony’s proposal and agrees to elope with him in a week.  Before they go, she tells him, she wants to attend the week-long personal development seminar that made such a difference to him (he learned that his spirit animal was a shark and that made him realize he had to start making decisions in his life because if a shark doesn’t move, it dies).

She has no intention of attending the seminar.  She just needs time to think.  And then Annika calls and asks her to pretend to be her mother for a parent conference at school.  Megan puts up her hair and fakes her way through.  And then she asks Annika if she can stay at her house for a week without her father finding out.  One of the many nice touches in this movie is that of course he finds out immediately.  This is not a sitcom.  The set-up may be artificial, but the characters have real-life reactions.

Annika’s father is Craig (Sam Rockwell), a divorce lawyer and single dad.  Annika’s mother left them years ago and he spends his days working with unhappy, angry couples.  Annika thought she could hide Megan because Sam was supposed to be at a mixer, but he comes home early.  I loved the detail that his name tag was on his arm and his conversation with Megan about how women at mixers like that tap him on the arm to show that they are listening.  There are lies, and excruciating confessions, and lessons learned, but the progress is organic as everyone from the school counselor who thinks Megan is Annika’s mother to the real mother (the always-excellent Gretchen Moll) to Megan’s old friends from high school and even Craig seem to be carrying a message about growing up even though you don’t have it all figured out. Shelton has enough confidence in the story, the characters, and her outstanding performers to avoid the easy exaggerations of the genre and show us real people who are essentially decent struggling to find the courage to move forward, even when they don’t know where that will take them.

Parents should know that this film includes strong language, drinking by adults and teenagers, drunk driving, car crash, sexual references, some crude, and non-explicit situations, and infidelity.

Family discussion: What animal would you pick to represent your spirit? How can you tell when you’ve outgrown your friends?

If you like this, try: “Girl Most Likely” and Sam Rockwell films like “Galaxy Quest” and “The Way Way Back”

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Trailer: Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley in “Begin Again” from the Director of “Once”

Posted on April 4, 2014 at 8:00 am

Can the man behind “Once” have the same luck twice? Writer/director John Carney returns with another bittersweet musical romance, this time starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo.
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Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Posted on June 21, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence
Profanity: Very strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drunkenness, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Disturbing themes of the end of the world, some violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 22, 2012
Date Released to DVD: October 22, 2012 ASIN: B007L6VRBM

Dr. Johnson memorably said that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully.  Part of what stories do for us is concentrate the mind by providing us with narratives that eliminate distracting quotidian effluvia and allow us to focus on one element of the story.  In “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” writer/director Lorene Scafaria (“Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist”) makes that concentration explicit.  The world is literally ending in three weeks, and we get to see how that concentrates the minds of Dodge (Steve Carell), Penny (Kiera Knightley), and the people they meet as everyone has to decide what from their “someday” list gets moved up to “now.”

Lorene Scafaria, who wrote the lovely “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” here directs her own screenplay with a top-notch cast and a sure sense of tone and pacing.  The classic elements of the journey film with a mis-matched pair on the road in search of something is kept fresh through the setting, the adventures and encounters along the way, and sensitive performances from Carell and Knightley.

As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross might have predicted, a lot of people get stuck in stage one: denial.  The movie opens as Dodge and his wife hear the radio announcer promise to keep the audience up to date on the progress of the asteroid known as Matilda and its collision path with Earth, along with a countdown to the end of days and “all your classic rock favorites.”  At first, most people run on automatic pilot.  Dodge goes to his office and tries to explain to a client that his insurance policy does not really cover what is about to happen.  “The Armageddon policy is extra.”  His boss tries to fill some abandoned positions by offering promotions.  People who always wanted to kill someone offer their services as assassins for hire by those who do not want to be alive when the meteor hits.  Musicians put on an end of the world awareness concert.  It’s like Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff and staying suspended in air until the realization hits — and then he does.

People start to get desperate.  Dodge’s wife leaves him.  A friend (Patten Oswalt) explains that the end of the world has made it very easy to sleep with women.  Dodge’s friends have a party and try to fix him up with a woman (Melanie Lynskey) who arrives wearing all of the jewelry she was saving for the right occasion.  But that is not what he wants.  The world is increasingly divided between people who choose various ways to numb themselves and those who take this last chance to stop being numb.

Dodge meets his neighbor, Penny, an English girl who has missed the last opportunity to get back to her family.  She has a mis-delivered letter from a girl he loved and lost.  And she has a car.  When rioters take over their building, he offers to get her to a plane if she will help him find the woman who sent the letter.  Helping each other gives them purpose.  Getting to know Penny gives Dodge more of a sense of being alive than he has ever had before.  Dodge had always been too cautious.  Penny had always been too irresponsible.  Now he must take chances and she must grow up.  It’s never too late.

On their journey, they see people and places from their past, including Penny’s survivalist ex-boyfriend (Derek Luke), who thinks that stockpiling weapons and canned goods will help him rebuild society.  They stop at a relentlessly chipper restaurant called Friendsy’s (yes, lots and lots of flair) where the staff’s increasingly shrill Ecstasy-fueled cheeriness becomes borderline deranged.  And then, even with just days and then hours left, they begin to shift from the past to the future.  And, as Rabindrath Tagore wrote,  “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”


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